David Ferguson: Ben Atiga a risky signing but Edinburgh can benefit

Edinburgh have tied up Atiga on a two-year deal. Picture: Getty
Edinburgh have tied up Atiga on a two-year deal. Picture: Getty
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THOSE who remember a young Ben Atiga exploding through midfield defences in the World Junior Championships in Scotland nearly a decade ago might be licking their lips at the prospect of seeing the Aucklander in an Edinburgh jersey next season.

Then, Atiga was a precocious talent, a player who had been spotted as a future All Black in his early teens at Auckland Grammar School and brought through the academy system to the point where he featured in three successive New Zealand schools teams.

He played for New Zealand Under-19s in 2002, for Auckland in 2003 and, before the end of the year, had made his full All Blacks debut, aged just 20, in the Rugby World Cup.

That was a controversial choice as Atiga was picked to replace the injured Ben Blair ahead of Christian Cullen. Coaches John Mitchell and Robbie Deans saw Atiga as the future. He was to play just six minutes, coming off the bench for Mils Muliaina in the 91-7 win over Tonga, before returning to Auckland and, still just 20, then headed to Scotland for the 2004 World Junior Championships as the only capped member of the squad.

He came through the Auckland system with such talents as Luke McAlister, Joe Rokocoko, Keven Mealamu, Isa Nacewa and Doug Howlett and the stand-off when New Zealand Under-21s routed Ireland 47-19 in the final at Hughenden, in front of nearly 6,000 spectators, was Stephen Donald.

McAlister was the skipper, Rudi Wulf was on one wing, Ben Franks and John Afoa the props and Jerome Kaino at openside flanker while Piri Weepu and Hosea Gear came off the bench in the last 20 minutes. All would follow Atiga to All Black status.

But Atiga’s rapid ascent hit a wall in the shape of Aaron Mauger, Tana Umaga, Casey Laulala, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Muliaina.

Although his skills and power had earlier marked him out as a player offering terrific versatility, he suddenly found some of the best All Blacks holding down the three-quarters berths.

Atiga played with Auckland and the Blues from 2004 to 2008, and enjoyed a run with the 2007 world sevens series-winning New Zealand team but, having struggled to start regularly, quit rugby in 2009.

That only proved to be a year out as Otago offered him a route back into the pro game, but he managed just one game before being released by the financially-troubled Otago union last year.

The 28-year-old has been on the market for a move to the northern hemisphere since then and, as he has no recent form to speak of, his signing represents a gamble for Edinburgh.

But the move, on a one-year deal with an option of a second, may refresh a player with an outstanding rugby pedigree.

He believes it will and said: “It has all happened very fast, probably in the space of about three weeks. The club were very interested in what I could bring to the table from a playing perspective but Michael [Bradley] also explained that he would be looking for me to play a leadership role and help bring on young Scottish players, a role which I’ve played with New Zealanders for the last couple of seasons and one which I’m looking forward to doing for Edinburgh Rugby.

“I toured Scotland with my school in 2000, with New Zealand Schools in 2001 and was based in Edinburgh with the New Zealand Under-21 side in 2004, when the Junior World Championships were in Glasgow, so it’s reassuring to have experienced my new home through rugby already.

“Playing rugby overseas has always been something that’s appealed to me.

“I’ve had loads of calls from fellow players at home and abroad telling me how beautiful the city is and how lucky I am to get this opportunity.

“I’m delighted to have signed and now just looking forward to getting on the pitch for my new club and doing my best for Edinburgh Rugby.”

The announcement comes as Edinburgh put their season- tickets on sale and with their requested allocation of 2,000 tickets for the Heineken Cup semi-final snapped up. Arguably, their big new signing so far has been South African tighthead prop WP Nel and Bradley is still hoping to add one or two more to his squad alongside the core of existing talent, with a handful of Scots being shown the door next month.

Edinburgh’s ability to improve on this season will depend on how well and quickly Atiga, Welsh pair John Yapp and Richie Rees, Georgian Dimitri Basilaia and Greig Tonks, the Scottish-qualified back from Northampton, adjust.